Epistemedia: the Role of Technology & Truth in Fact & Rumor (full text speech)
Or “Just the Facts, Mam!”
By George Gilder
The Discovery Institute
According to widely reported rumors based on largely anonymous sources close to the presiding authorities, this Mediterranean neighborhood once attracted a notable visitor. Arriving discreetly in a small Palestinian town, He attracted attention by his knowledge of a transcendent order and by his miraculous cures. Some eloquent witnesses called the visitor “God,” or the “Son of God,” though some two thousand years later what they meant remains in dispute.
In any case, He and his followers established a hierarchical religion and an apostolic priesthood. Said to be the Creator of the Cosmos, He was the source of all truth and moral authority. Kings and scholars bowed before Him. Nearly all of the Great Men of science and history, from Pascal to Einstein, sought to interpret His laws and creative powers, which were alleged to be manifest both in nature and in scripture.
Now, as the result of some epistemic plague, He is alleged to have died. Amid the throes of the Death of God, humans claim new rights and ordain new laws of pleasure and progress. Without God, everything is permitted. Priests remove their clothes in public and molest children on the Internet. At the Harvard Divinity School professors erect crosses and crèches made entirely of condoms. Theology succumbs to hedonism. In some contemporary accounts, God came out of the closet, ordained homosexual marriage, caroused at various World Councils and Conventions of Churches, and eventually died of AIDS.
In God’s majestic stead has emerged a bottom-up regime of Darwinian materialism as the sole scientifically tenable explanation for human life and natural diversity. The new regime essentially flattens the Universe. Replacing the story of creation—the rumored God and hierarchical cosmos—is an ebullition of accidental and purely physical fact. All reality is said to be derivable from such physically ascertainable and testable facts.
“Just the facts, Mam!” So can be summed up the new flat cosmos. I remember that canonical phrase from my childhood. I heard it as I clutched my new transistor radio—the dazzling new technology of my youth—to hear tales of tough interrogation by a no-nonsense detective named Jack Webb on a program called Dragnet. Or was it Joseph Welch at the Army McCarthy hearings before the US Senate? Through the fogs of time, the voices all converge but the message remains: “Just the facts.”
In my memory, the program on the radio segued into black and white television stories of Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, the sage and upright defense lawyer, also insisting on the primacy of facts. Finally came Sergeant Colombo (or was it Walter Cronkite?) upholding the same moral universe of physical factuality, with all other hierarchical forms of power or claims of authority banished to the lapsarian fringes. There, Watergate burglars, oilmen, and rogue CIA officials conspired in the night for Woodward and Bernstein to expose in the pages of the Washington Post.
Representing the netherworld of non-facts were hypocritical preachers and prevaricating conservative politicians, babbling crones and prattling codgers. These were often humorous figures who insisted on trafficking in the inferior coin of “rumor” and “hearsay,” revelation or scripture. But not everyone laughed. People who upheld a top-down order of monotheistic creation faced charges of conspiracy and mendacity. They were liars in high places speaking an illegitimate jargon of patriarchal or capitalist power summed up as “sexism, racism, and homophobia”—all eminently culpable and non-factual forms of priestcraft.
“Just the facts, Mam,” was the theory of knowledge that brought me into journalism. I will call it the epistemedia of my youth: the explicit and implicit theory of journalistic and scientific knowledge that I was taught at Harvard. The epistemedia reached its pinnacle in the classes of logical positivist philosophers, who developed an elaborate technique for debunking all claims of transcendent or even abstract truth. If it was not testable material fact, it was meaningless mysticism. All other claims of truth trailed far behind material factuality in a long tail of the impressionistic or deceitful, bogus or biased, tendentious or sanctimonious, hypocritical or hyped, self-interested or self-indulgent.
However prestigious this approach remains among most journalists today, to me that assurance of the impregnable authority of “fact” seems long gone. I am here to tell you that there has occurred an epistemic inversion, in which the role of facts and rumors has subtly but entirely changed. I might sum up the inversion by saying that facts have become religious and rumors have become scientific.
In the course of a half century, that transistor at the heart of he handheld radio of my youth has multiplied by the millions of trillions and turned into the Internet. At the heart of the net is “Google.” Google has evolved from a mere noun into a verb. “Google” the word “fact”—especially the phrase “scientific fact”—and you can discover some of the most popular scientific facts of the epoch. Devotedly cataloged by Google, these are the “facts” most avidly upheld by the media, who have largely usurped from priests and scientists the role of certifying the realms of public truth.
Near the very pinnacle of scientific factuality, you will find a “human-caused” (or more specifically capitalist-caused) catastrophe called global warming or climate change.
There is no evidence at all for this proposition. The climate is always changing. By all the available long-term data series, such as ice cores and the Sargasso Sea residues, confirmed by historical accounts, temperatures are currently a little colder than the average of the last 3000 years. It is warmer than the little ice age of the 1700s but around two degrees C colder than the Medieval Climate Optimum around the turn of the millennium and other well documented warm periods at 500 and 1000 BC.
But this empirical and historical record does not interest the global warmers. They assert the fact of human caused global warming on the basis of authority. Cited is an alleged “consensus of scientists.” Since most actual scientists do not agree with the alleged consensus (some 18 thousand of them signed a protest against it), the heretics must be defrocked. These actual scientists are depicted as gullible or vendible tools of a sinister conspiracy of oil executives at Exxon Mobil or Halliburton, led by a diabolical horned figure—an all powerful but possibly mythical beast—named Dick Cheney. The man behind the petition of 18 thousand scientists is Arthur Robinson, the Caltech protégé of double Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling. Under the title Access to Energy, Robinson writes a monthly newsletter critique of spurious scientific “facts”.
A related “fact,” celebrated by the media, concerns the alleged depletion of reserves of fossil fuel. As a practical matter, available reserves are determined by technology. New technologies for extracting oil from tar sands and shale render petroleum more abundant than ever before in history. But if you don’t like these sources, coal and natural gas are ubiquitous and can be readily converted into usable energy liquids.
The global warming fabric of “fact,” however, condemns fossil fuels and thus opposes their continued extraction. The false “fact” of human caused climate change thus requires a complementary pseudo-fact of CO2 pollution and a further false fact of the exhaustion of fossil fuels.
Uranium, of course, remains abundant, but the media treats this form of energy as dangerous, confusing power plants with bombs and perpetuating the myth of widespread death and damage from the Soviet nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. An elaborate government study reported recently that no one outside the immediate area died as a result of the Chernobyl incident.
The inversion of what I would call facticity (to differentiate it from real factuality) began perhaps five decades ago when the media similarly reported the “fact” of devastating environmental damage from DDT. As has been rediscovered in recent times, DDT is by far the most benign from of pesticide and its use succeeded in largely eliminating the scourge of malaria, saving hundreds of millions of lives and winning a well-deserved Nobel Prize for its inventor. Even the scientific review board of the US Environmental Protection Agency that launched the DDT ban found DDT to be entirely safe and environmentally beneficial.
But by then, on matters of facticity, the Media was sufficiently powerful to overrule the regnant scientists and politicians. Rachel Carson, a media heroine, wrote Silent Spring and declared the human toxicity of DDT a fact. The rest of the media and political allies such as the then young Al Gore ratified the media vote. DDT was largely banned. Malaria returned and hundreds of millions of human beings, mostly children in the Third World, died on the altar of this new fact.
A further fact lucratively popular is the deadly toxicity of asbestos. Most asbestos is harmless and has the extremely beneficial property of retarding fires, which have been known to inflict environmental damage and cause pain to animals. However, the regnant authorities condemned the substance as carcinogenic and it was duly banned (though only five percent of asbestos actually could cause the deadly disease and then only if it were inhaled for long periods). As a result of the ban and subsequent class action litigation, the US chemical industry, including 35 major corporations, was largely bankrupted with total costs mounting over a trillion dollars.
The asbestos ban brought other less recognized costs. In the course of the construction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the use of asbestos was halted. As a result, asbestos insulation was replaced with inferior materials above the 38th floor of the first WTC tower and throughout all. of the second Tower. At the time, the engineer in charge declared that the building would fall in a fire. His warnings were ignored by the WTC construction manager Rino Monti who was persuaded by an environmentalist campaign to fear an emanation of asbestos fiber more than the eruption of fire at hundreds of meters above the ground. As a direct result of this decision, 2000 people died. As an indirect result of this disaster of false facticity, the US dispatched troops to the Middle East.
In the last decades of the Twentieth Century, the nimbus of facticity spread to human biology and ordained the non-existence of significant biological differences between the brains of men and women. All variations in mathematical test scores or in pay or precedence were ascribed to a pervasive conspiratorial force called patriarchy, which also came to have something to do with Dick Cheney or his wife Lynne. Heretical skeptics such as Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, and myself, were pilloried in the media.
Other “facts” beloved of the media concern the matter of public opinion—what views are held by the public on a variety of subjects at any particular time. Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion refuted such facts, I would think for all time; he showed that the “public” is largely a phantom and that this phantom public cannot be relevantly said to hold detailed opinions on anything much. The key input in any public opinion poll is the choice of questions and the way they are framed by the media. The outputs of public opinion are largely determined by these media inputs.
Much of the content of the media consists in reportage and analysis of public opinion polls conducted by other parts of the media—phantoms chasing phantoms in a world of funhouse mirrors. Most of the polls of scientists that allege a “consensus” on this or that “fact” are similar reflections of such shadows in mirrors in a platonic cave.
The great 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, writing in his masterpiece The Revolt of the Masses, explained this state of affairs as an invasion of modern society by “barbarians of specialization.” Each specialist knows virtually nothing about neighboring disciplines. But on the basis of his authority in his chosen field he confidently opines on subjects of which he is mostly ignorant. He readily joins polled consensuses of established beliefs not because he knows they are true but because in a relativistic world he has a strong interest in gaining reciprocal respect from his peers.
I could go through scores of spurious facts enshrined by the media as “scientific truths.” In sum, they epitomize the inversion that I am describing. The word “fact” has come to mean a fervently held belief that is not true—a tenet or dogma presented to be beyond refutation. It is validated only by the authority of consensus or scripture. In other words, a fact has become a religious tenet in disguise.
The prevailing secular religion is widely called “environmental science.” It has the same relation to science as does so-called “Christian Science”. As physicist Richard Feynman once observed about adjectival sciences: “If a science has an adjective it probably isn’t.” Environmental science is mainly an anti-capitalist religion like Marxism. Global warming is its myth of hellfire. Rachel Carson was its first prophet in America. Al Gore is its current Jeremiah. Politicians around the globe see it as a shining path to power—a way to submit all economic growth to political regulation by controlling the use of the critical energy resources that sustain capitalist industry and human prosperity. But at the foundation of this ideology of control is the control of ideological “facts.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, a similar inversion can be said to have affected the concept of “rumor.” Unlike “facts,” which are deemed irrefutable, rumors are reports for which truth claims are always tentative and falsifiable. You do not believe a rumor simply because Al Gore or Rachel Carson or Noam Chomsky says it is true. A rumor has become a form of belief that is more scientific than facts are.
The ultimate source of this new inversion of fact and rumor is Karl Popper. Popper declared that the defining characteristic of a scientific proposition is falsifiability; it can be refuted and must be revised in the face of new evidence.
By the Popperian standard, for example, the notion of “the survival of the fittest” is not a scientific proposition but a largely empty tautology. What is fit survives. What survives is fit. It is a circular affirmation of no particular content—a self-referential truism that tells nothing significant about the world.
In a Popperian world, a consensus of scientists is an entirely irrelevant source of authority for any particular claim of truth. Truth is defined by the willingness of the truth tellers to forgo consensual applause and submit their beliefs to empirical test. Rumors are far more scientific than “facts” are because rumors don’t make claims of irrefutable truth that stifle further research.
Let me close by reporting some rumors from the world of technology. I have spent most of the last 30 years studying, describing, and finally financing various forms of the transistor and optical technologies behind the Internet. In a book called Life After Television, published in 1990 and again in 1994, I predicted that the coming “worldwide web of glass and light” would doom television and usher in a Golden Age of text. TV was already fine for images, I wrote. Therefore the ongoing improvement of screens would chiefly favor text. I said that in digital form newspapers would dominate the new epoch.
Today emails, nearly all text, are the dominant form of communication, emitted at a rate of millions per second. To measure email output, you have to use physical measures of frequency normally applied to electromagnetic radiation—millions per second or megahertz. Beyond emails, there are today some five million regularly published blogs, also mostly text. And although many newspaper companies are struggling, newspaper content is more widely distributed than ever before in history. By the measure of hypertext referrals, five out of the ten most influential websites are run by newspaper or magazine companies. The New York Times, amazingly, remains number one.
With regard to the prevailing materialist claims of a flat universe, the key characteristic of the information technology behind the Internet is that it is top-down and hierarchical, not bottom up and accidental. Flat universe materialism has become a prevailing materialist superstition.
Take a computer, the epitome of information technology. You can know the location and condition of every atom or molecule in a computer microchip without having any information at all about what function the computer is performing or what content it is processing. The physical layer of the computer reveals virtually nothing about the seven layers of abstraction above it. To know what the computer is doing entails knowing the source code of the software program that the machine is executing. That source code originated in a human brain.
Analogously knowledge of the transactions among the tens of trillions of neurons in the human brain reveals no more about the content of human thought than does knowledge of a computer’s molecular structure reveal about its content or function. As computer titans Gregory Chaitin, Alonzo Church, and Alan Turing have shown, software programs ultimately stem from mathematical logic. In the primary mathematical discovery of the Twentieth Century, Kurt Godel proved in essence that mathematical systems—and thus all logical schemes—are incomplete in themselves. They are dependent on premises beyond themselves and irreducible to their own logic.
The human mind is similarly irreducible to its physical facts. Physicist and Nobel laureate biologist Max Delbruck made this point through a provocative analogy with a famous German fictional character. He said that the campaign by neuroscientists to reduce the human mind to purely physical causes reminded him of nothing so much as “the effort of Baron Munchausen to extract himself from a swamp by pulling ever harder on his own hair.”
Mind is not reducible to physical brain and the brain is not reducible to the movements of its atoms and molecules. Like the structure of information technology, the Universe is not flat. It is hierarchical and at the top remains the authority of the word—the logic of the ultimate. Throughout human history, it has been economical and convenient to call this ultimate source of truth and creation God. All monotheistic religions uphold the concept.
A monotheistic God is mere rumor. It can be refuted by showing many parallel realities ruled by different Gods. So far, no other parallel universes have been found, though scientists persist in seeking them. Such claims remain in the realm of rumor.
For irrefutable facts you must consult Al Gore, the United Nations, and their various commissions of truth and politics trying to close down inconvenient arguments about the facticity of the environmental panic of the day.
In a Popperian world, rumor is superior to fact. However, the realm of rumor requires careful maintenance of its sustaining connection with the exacting Popperian regimen of science. As philosopher Andrew Cort has written in his essay The American Psyche in Search of a Soul, “Without this connection [to scientific rigor] mind becomes puerile, the emotions become sentimental, the individual becomes ineffectual (or worse, lunatic and dangerous), and culture become stagnant (or fanatic and depraved).”
The crisis of Western thought arises from this displacement at the heart of the American media and academia, where facts have declined into a mere chaos of physical claims.
At the same time, as Cort writes, “The realm of science, which broadly includes the entire visible external life of nature, and by extension, the life of action, politics, economics and technology, requires a connection with the realm of spirit, the heart, the philosophic mind. Otherwise, science becomes merely the accumulation of data devoid of meaning—a trivial and dangerous pursuit, which inescapably leads to apathy, cruelty [and yes] the destruction of the environment, an insipid consumerism, and all the inner emptiness which rots and impoverishes our lives and society….
Cort concludes: “The spirit needs material science, to become mature and useful. Science needs the spirit, to become decent and intelligent. Only the soul can unite them.”
So at the top of the hierarchy remains the human soul, in correspondence with the monotheist order—the divine. This may be rumor, but it is also fact. It cannot be refuted by a flat-universe society of materialist superstitions. Only in the fusion of soul and science in hierarchical aspiration and faith can be found the source of truth in the modern world.